Today we welcome “Babyland” by Steve Edwards to our New Voices library. This touching story about father and daughter isn’t what you expect from a piece about fatherly love. Baby Emma has been six months old for fifteen years. She simply doesn’t age, and in this whip-smart, emotionally resonant story, her family experiences the joys, frustrations, and sorrows of caring for a child that is forever young.
“In his worst moments, when his grading has piled up, or when Grace is irritable with him, or Baby Emma is colicky and impossible to please, loss spears him between the ribs.”
At the end of every day, when Jesse has finished teaching his classes, and the babysitter’s been paid, and Grace has returned from work at the museum and changed into jeans and a sweater, and dinner’s been eaten and dishes piled in the sink, they load Baby Emma into her stroller and walk around the Witherbee neighborhood. They are fixtures in Lincoln, that middle-aged couple out walking their baby around the tennis courts at Woods Park and past St. Elizabeth’s with its evening bells. That they have been doing this for over a decade now, and that at one time they were Internet famous, doesn’t matter much to their neighbors. If anything, Jesse thinks, it’s probably nice for the neighbors to see him and Grace and Baby Emma out for a stroll. It means everything’s right in the world. To see them sauntering up the hill on Woods Avenue, some golden late-fall afternoon, dappled sunlight in the last of the zinnias, a big Nebraska sky overhead, is to know exactly who and where you are, and to feel at home in your life. Jesse imagines that their stability—and its illusion of permanence—gives people comfort. Everywhere they walk, down every block and side street, their neighbors wave and say hello.
Jesse knows that they are lucky in some respects. Babies aren’t that expensive: milk and diapers, clothes, toys. Other kids grow out of new shoes in mere months. Teens wreak havoc on grocery budgets. And the staggering price of college. Baby Emma, on the other hand, is predictable. Year after year, the same clothes fit her. She drinks roughly the same amount of milk. In the lost year they worried about healthcare costs, thinking that she was sick. But she isn’t sick.
She isn’t growing—she is still, essentially, a six-month-old—but she isn’t sick. All in all, she’s a happy baby. She coos and gurgles and fusses and grins. And even after all this time, she’s a handful.
If Jesse doesn’t watch her carefully, she’ll wriggle off any couch or chair and bump her head. There’s nothing she won’t put in her mouth: pennies, lost buttons, thumbtacks. Several years ago, he found a pair of spotted beetle wings in one of her stools. Fortunately, Baby Emma is a good sleeper. She can knock out for eight hours, no problem, and when she does wake up all Jesse has to do is hold her and she calms right down. Sometimes on those nights, he watches her after she’s fallen back asleep. Her little pug nose. Her soft eyes and the creases on their lids. He knows she will likely never look at him and say, “I love you, Dad.” And he’ll never walk her down the aisle, tears quaking on his cheeks. But a night or two a week, he holds her and feels her tense body soften at his touch, at the sound of his voice. It’s something.